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A choice the Cubs made in the 1968 expansion draft could have cost them the pennant in 1969

It has to do with how bad the team’s backup catchers were.

John Boccabella with the Montreal Expos
Photo by Diamond Images/Getty Images

The things you learn when looking up other things...

As you all know, I am a keen student of Cubs history and enjoy researching and writing articles on the subject here. I was looking up something completely unrelated to the topic here when I came across a Tribune article from October 9, 1968. The article focused on the Cubs’ attempt to acquire a right fielder, specifically Johnny Callison (who they did trade for a year later) or Vada Pinson. Teams wanted one of the Cubs’ top three starters so no deal was made.

But the article also covered some things about the expansion draft, which was scheduled only a few days hence. Teams could protect 15 players from their organization, then each time they lost a player, they could protect three more. The Expos, Padres, Royals and Pilots would each choose 30 players, strictly from the league they were joining, so in effect each of the existing 10 clubs would lose three players to each of the new clubs, theoretically their 16th, 20th, 24th, 28th, 32nd, and 36th best players.

That is, if they were protecting players properly. The Tribune article by George Langford said the first 15 protected players were:

Infielders Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Glenn Beckert and Don Kessinger; Catchers Randy Bobb and Randy Hundley; Outfielders Billy Williams and Adolfo Phillips; Pitchers Ferguson Jenkins, Bill Hands, Ken Holtzman, Joe Niekro, Rich Nye, Gary Ross and Phil Regan.

Now which of those names stands out to you as not belonging?

Randy Bobb. Seriously, Randy Bobb?

The Cubs had selected Bobb in the first round (second overall) in the secondary phase of the 1967 June draft. In practice, that phase was mostly for college players. Bobb had been highly touted out of Arizona State and demolished rookie-league pitching (.369/.453/.569 in 130 at-bats), but when promoted the following year his bat slumped to .240/.280/.339 in 233 at-bats. He got into seven games for the Cubs in late 1968 and was fast-tracked to Triple-A in 1969, hitting a bit better at Tacoma, .263/.323/.343 in 414 at-bats.

Nothing in that record screamed out “one of the best 15 players in the Cubs organization,” but there he was, protected from the Expos or Padres “stealing him away.”

The Cubs lost shortstop Jose Arcia, righthander Bill Stoneman, righthander Frank Reberger, righthander Rick James and infielder Garry Jestadt among the first 55 picks of the expansion draft. They thus would have protected an additional 15 players before they would lose their sixth and final player of the expansion draft. Among those five, only Stoneman had any sort of significant MLB career.

That player, chosen 56th overall, was John Boccabella. How could it be that Boccabella, then just 27 and with MLB experience at catcher, first base and the outfield, wasn’t at least the 31st-best player in the Cubs organization in October 1968? In 1968 at Triple-A Tacoma he’d hit .269/.313/.493 with 16 home runs in 73 games — pretty good in what was generally considered a pitcher-dominated season.

If you were around when the Expos were in their early years and watched televised Cubs games from Montreal, you almost certainly remember Expos PA announcer Claude Mouton stretching out Boccabella’s name into something that sounded like “John Bocccccca... belllllaaaaa.” Fans there loved it and Boccabella became a big fan favorite in Montreal. He was a fine defensive catcher (he threw out 41 percent of attempted base stealers, in a base-stealing era), perfectly suited to be a MLB backup in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Boccabella couldn’t hit much. The reason I’m writing this article, though, is that he absolutely could have hit better than the five catchers Leo Durocher and the Cubs tried to have backing up Randy Hundley in 1969.

Durocher ruined Hundley. Of this there’s almost no doubt. Hundley caught in 160 (!) games in 1968, starting 156. That’s abuse, even for that time. No one else started even 140 games at catcher that year (Johnny Bench was next with 139), and Hundley not only started 156 games behind the plate, he caught every inning of 147 of those games and most innings of the rest, including catching every inning of both games of doubleheaders on consecutive days July 6 and 7 and then after the All-Star break, catching every inning of both games of another doubleheader July 11. Of the 1,453⅓ innings played by the Cubs in 1968, Hundley caught 1,385 of them — 95.3 percent.

Abuse. Plain and simple. And it continued in 1969. Hundley started every one of the Cubs’ first 68 games behind the plate, and caught all but seven innings of those 68 games, finally getting a game off in Game 69 — but not a day off. Leo let him sit out the second game of a doubleheader June 22. This brutal stretch included every inning of both games of consecutive doubleheaders April 20 and 22... wow, Leo didn’t make him work on the off day, April 21. Still.

Even with that ridiculous workload, Hundley was hitting. Through June 22’s first game Hundley was hitting .304/.385/.472 (76-for-250) with 11 home runs. Those were very good numbers for anyone, much less for a catcher in those days.

The reasons for pushing Hundley so hard is that the Cubs simply didn’t have anyone on the bench who could catch. As was the case for many teams in that era, the Cubs began the season carrying two backup catchers: Gene Oliver and Ken Rudolph. Oliver had some good years for the Cardinals and Reds from 1962-65, but injuries and age had made him mostly useless by 1969. Rudolph was a 22-year-old rookie who hadn’t hit much in the minor leagues.

So I guess you could understand why Durocher didn’t want to start those guys. Rudolph started the June 22 second game and went 1-for-3. Leo started him again June 26 and Rudolph homered. That got him one more start and then he was benched, not starting again until July 6.

Oliver had played a couple of innings in a game April 13, then was strictly a pinch-hitter until mid-August, when a minor thumb injury forced Hundley to the bench for a few games. By then the Cubs had added yet another catcher, Bill Heath, who had previously had a bit of MLB experience with the Astros and Tigers. Heath was called up May 10 but didn’t start a game until August 13, when he and Oliver split duty while Hundley was hurt.

Heath started August 19, the day Ken Holtzman threw his no-hitter. But Heath didn’t even get to be in the celebratory pile when that game was won, because a foul ball broke a finger on Heath’s hand and he had to leave the game. Oliver replaced him and Heath never played in the major leagues again.

John Hairston, Jerry’s brother and Jerry Jr.’s uncle, played in three games in September, starting the season’s final game.

And Randy Bobb? The guy the Cubs protected in the expansion draft along with Hall of Famers Banks, Santo, Williams and Jenkins?

Same thing as Hairston. He caught in three games in September, starting one of them, and before the 1970 season began he was traded to the Mets for J.C. Martin. Bobb never played in the majors again after 1969.

Hundley was gassed by midseason 1969. After he finally got that game (but not the day) off June 22, he hit .210/.287/.316 (57-for-272) the rest of the way with seven home runs.

The 1969 Cubs were 85-59 (.590) in games Hundley started. (Note: that’s 144 games; he also started the Cubs’ one tie game in 1969, making 145 starts.) That’s a 96-win pace (not that anyone would have wanted Hundley to catch all 162 games!). The ‘69 Cubs had a 7-11 record in the games caught by others and in their 18 starts hit .140/.220/.240 (7-for-50) with one home run. That’s a .460 OPS in 18 games. It certainly isn’t exclusively those catchers’ fault that the Cubs lost 11 of those 18 games, but their offense didn’t help any.

John Boccabella wasn’t a great hitter by any means, but he was a better hitter than that. If the Cubs had protected Boccabella and kept him around as Hundley’s backup in 1969, Hundley might have gotten more rest — presuming Durocher would have allowed it — and maybe the Cubs would have had a better record in the games he didn’t start. Maybe it would have helped eliminate some of the fatigue down the stretch. Durocher even tried to replace Ernie Banks with Boccabella in 1966. That didn’t work; maybe Durocher had soured on Boccabella and didn’t want to keep him around. A manager like Durocher had much more influence on player transactions in that era than a modern manager does.

Durocher ran his players into the ground, but none more than Randy Hundley. His knee finally gave way seven games into the 1970 season and he was never the same after that. In 1968, some were making positive comparisons between Hundley and future Hall of Famer Johnny Bench. Hundley might not have had that good a career, but without Durocher overusing him, he’d surely have had a better one than he did. At the time of his first serious knee injury in April 1970, Hundley had started 599 of the 657 Cubs games since his acquisition before the 1966 season — 91.1 percent — and caught the entire game in all but 30 of those 599.

It was abusive and by that time in MLB history, it shouldn’t have been done. And the failure of Durocher and Cubs management to keep a suitable backup in Boccabella was one of the most important factors in the Cubs’ collapse in 1969.